Beating Mr. Turgenev: "The Execution of Tropmann" and Hemingway's Aesthetic of Witness.
Dying is a very simple thing. I've looked at death and really I know. Hemingway, Letter to his family 18 October 1918 (SL 19)
He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it ... "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (SS 66)
IVAN TURGENEV'S INFLUENCE on Ernest Hemingway has been widely appreciated, a literary discussion repeatedly invited by Hemingway himself. (1) Although critics have discussed Hemingway with respect to Turgenev, important aspects of this relationship remain unmined. (2) This essay proposes to explore how one of Turgenev's most poignant works, his 1870 essay "The Execution of Tropmann," introduces a theme that Hemingway would spend an entire career negotiating: the artist's responsibility to witness violence in all its horror, to observe even the most minute details that may challenge one's humanity, and finally, to render thate scene with an accuracy that not only inspires emotion, but conveys authenticity. "The Execution of Tropmann"--entirely unremarked upon in Hemingway studies--illustrates the sensitivity of the challenge Hemingway gave himself. In this article, I would like to examine the themes of Turgenev's essay, and then explore Hemingway's own entrance into similar literary terrain.
Although Hemingway owned an English translation of "The Execution of Tropmann" towards the end of his life, he was probably introduced to the essay in the 1920s through a French translation. (3) "Tropmann" was not available in English until 1944, and then in 1958 appeared in a more definitive translation, which Hemingway owned (Brasch and Sigman 354). (4) For Hemingway to read a Russian author such as Turgenev in French would not be unusual. Recalling his early reading habits, Hemingway claims that he learned to read French through the crime reports and the sports section in newspapers. Then, he continues, "it was only a jump to Dr. de Maupassant ... Dumas, Daudet, Stendhal ... Mr. Flaubert ... Mr. Baudelaire ... and Mr. Rimbaud" (Ross 62-63). (5) In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes that his Paris reading "started with Turgenev" (36); he then recalls that after discovering Sylvia Beach's library, he "read all of Turgenev" (133). Hemingway states that he read "what had been published in English of Gogol, the Constance Garnett translations of Tolstoi and the English translations of Chekhov" (133), but never says that he read Turgenev in English, as he does with the three other Russian writers he names. Hemingway also declares unequivocally that he has read Turgenev's work in its entirety. Writing for Esquire in 1935, he advises a younger writer to read "all of Turgenev" as opposed to "all the good Kipling," as well as "The Brothers Karamazov and any two other Dostoevskis" (BL 218). Hemingway's insistence that it was essential to read everything that Turgenev had written--and not necessarily in English--would be reiterated twenty-five years later in A Moveable Feast.
In "The Execution of Tropmann," Turgenev dramatizes himself at an execution, squeamishly turning away from a murderer's beheading at the crucial moment. The twelve-part essay implicates those in attendance--and primarily the writer himself--as morally complicit in the government's action. Although Turgenev turns away at the moment of impact, he nevertheless spares no detail; the reader is constantly reminded of the horror of execution, the humanity of the executed man, and the moral ambivalence of the mob.
Yet Turgenev's contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky would ruthlessly mock "The Execution of Tropmann," citing Turgenev's focus on his personal reaction as overly sentimental and self-involved, revealing a hesitance to comprehend and then detail faithfully the full range of human behavior. In an 11 June 1870 letter, a disgusted Dostoevsky wrote:
[T]his pompous and finicky article exasperated me. Why does he get all flustered and maintain that he had no right to be there? Yes, of course, if he only came for the spectacle; but man on the surface of the earth does not have the right to turn away and ignore what is taking place on earth, and there are lofty moral reasons for this: homo sum et nihil humanum ["I am a man; nothing human is alien to me"], etc. (6) The most comic thing of all is that in the end he turns away and doesn't see how [Tropmann] is finally executed.... all this over a decapitated head! (qtd. in Jackson 39)
To Dostoevsky, it was immoral to turn away, not immoral to watch, contrary to Turgenev's conclusion. Clearly, Dostoevsky--who had had an even more immediate experience with an execution (i.e., the last-second commutation of his own death sentence in 1849)--claimed different priorities than Turgenev. Dostoevsky's 1872 novel Demons continued the assault on Turgenev with a passage satirizing his "highly moral" stance. (7) In what Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank terms "a malicious but masterly caricature" and a "devastating depiction" (461), Dostoevsky lampoons the writer Karmazinov, his fictional stand-in for Turgenev, for authoring a text reminiscent of "The Execution of Tropmann":
I had read an article of his in a magazine, written with a terrible pretension to the most naive poetry and ... to psychology. He described the wreck of a steamer ... of which he himself had been a witness and had seen how the perishing were being saved and the drowned dragged out. The whole article, quite a long and verbose one, was written with the sole purpose of self-display. One could simply read between the lines: "Pay attention to me, look at how I was in those moments.... look at me, at how I could not bear the sight and turned away. Here I am turning my back; here I am horrified and unable to look again; I've shut my eyes--interesting, is it not?" (85)
Robert Louis Jackson refers to the moral implications for those in attendance at a horrific event as an "ethics of vision" (34). His focus on "The Execution of Tropmann" reveals what Jackson calls "the accountability of sight" and the "moral-psychological experience of looking at violence" (4), notions not only crucial to Turgenev's piece and Dostoevsky's reaction, but also to Hemingway's career-long examination of bullfighting and war. Likewise, in The Hanging Tree, an analysis of executions in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, V.A.C. Gatrell observes that voyeurism can be "turned into a form of honest witness, avoiding cant and testing courage and manhood. One could not flinch at these realities; one needed to watch another's death in order to experience it vicariously, as one would one's own" (250). Jackson and Gatrell concur with Hemingway's judgment that the mettle to watch an execution provides the artist with a moral and artistic clarity that cannot be achieved if a writer does not bear witness.
William C. Brumfield, who calls Dostoevsky's reaction "unfair and overstated" (79), points out the compelling paradox of Turgenev's writing performance: "the skill with which Turgenev describes the execution ... renders apologies and justifications irrelevant" (80). Brumfield suggests that although the conceit of "Tropmann" is that Turgenev turns away, somehow nothing escapes the writer's vision. With an unerring use of detail evincing his artistic courage, Turgenev probes the inhumanity he found inherent in executing a human being.
"The Execution of Tropmann" chronicles Turgenev's first-hand experience at the 19 January 1870 beheading of Jean-Baptiste Tropmann, notorious for killing all six members of the Kink family in 1869. The sensational murder became a cultural touchstone--Rimbaud, Celine, Henry James, and Georges Bataille all refer to Tropmann--and also gained international attention as a sordid news event. Accounts of the trial in The New York Times refer to Tropmann as the "most inhuman savage of the present generation," "a monster," whose deeds were "so horrible and revolting that we can only imagine the universal voice of mankind crying for his blood." An editorial suggests that the trial "is one of those cases in which almost every one is heard to declare that death is too slight a punishment for the offence" ("Traupmann" (8)). But Turgenev disagreed.
Turgenev decided to attend Tropmann's execution after receiving an invitation from his friend, the writer Maxime Du Camp. Almost immediately, he wished to rescind his acceptance, although "[f]alse pride" and his fear of being called a coward kept him silent ("Execution" 245). With the essay, then, Turgenev punishes himself for his own moral failings, and simultaneously instructs his readers about the realities of execution, imploring them to re-evaluate the morality of capital punishment.
Turgenev's immediate proximity to a man about to die and the essay's chilling details ask for the reader's moral deliberation, something the vigilantly objective Hemingway would probably have avoided. (9) Turgenev describes the executioner's "beautiful hands of remarkable whiteness" (250) and the guillotine itself, its "sort of sinister shapeliness, the shapeliness of a long, carefully stretched out swan's neck" (253). Tropmann's haircut before his execution provides the essay's most haunting image: "Thick strands of wiry, dark-brown hair slid over the shoulders and fell on the floor; one of them rolled up to my boot" (264). Turgenev humanizes Tropmann by focusing on the most fragile aspect of his anatomy, the "slender, youthful" neck (264), "so smooth, so white, so healthy," which Turgenev cannot imagine being severed by the guillotine (265). The executioner's hands and Tropmann's neck have the same virginal whiteness as the hands of the lovely Anna Sergyevna Odintsov in Fathers and Sons. Thus, Turgenev finds signs of human vulnerability in three quite different people and positions.
Early in "The Execution of Tropmann," Turgenev is mistaken for the executioner as he walks to the prison, and exclaims: "A lovely beginning!" (246). This poignant moment suggests the culpability of witnesses. While obviously never condoning Tropmann's murders, Turgenev is repulsed by state-sponsored executions and sickened by his own decision to associate himself with one. Just as he was confused with the executioner, Turgenev conflates himself and the other witnesses with the man to be executed. Of the crowds that wait during the night, he writes "we wandered about like condemned souls" (252). Later, observing horses chewing oats, he considers them "the only innocent creatures among us all" (255). For Turgenev, "there was one thing I was sure of, namely that I had no right to be where I was, that no psychological or philosophic considerations excused me" (249). (10) Dostoevsky later scoffed at such a solipsistic account of someone else's execution, but Turgenev's self-disgust leads logically to the essay's ultimate position on capital punishment.
The intense introspection in "The Execution of Tropmann" made Turgenev an easy target for Dostoevsky's contempt, but also led him to realize that he does not want to be an unflinching, unreflective eyewitness to violent death. As the execution nears and the dropping of the guillotine blade is rehearsed, Turgenev already cannot bring himself to watch, expressing the sensation of "some unknown transgression ... some secret shame" (255), until he eventually feels--like Hamlet's beleaguered night watchman Francisco--"terribly sick at heart" (256). Turgenev reveals that, in the moments preceding the execution, he "suddenly felt cold, so cold that I almost felt sick ... my legs gave way under me" (266). In the early pages of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway accuses his literary predecessors of averting their gazes both actually and psychologically, and Turgenev does just that. As Tropmann is wrestled into position to be killed, Turgenev writes, "But here I turned away" (267). His moral disgust leads to physical nausea, and then, capturing the mood of the gathered throng, he reports, "everyone tried to turn away in spirit" (268). Turgenev concludes by hoping that capital punishment will be outlawed, arriving at a political position via a sobering psychological crisis.
Elizabeth Cheresh Allen argues that while Turgenev's repulsion necessarily leads to a compromised eyewitness account, it also allows him to "maintain his sanity, his identity, his very humanity" (52). However, for Dostoevsky and later for Hemingway, such turning away distorts the reality of human behavior and of the ugly and even inhuman elements that are necessary to art. For them, Turgenev's excess sensitivity prevents him from maintaining his purity of craft and his fidelity to reporting violent experience.
Although Turgenev is preoccupied with the ethics of the execution, Hemingway, like Dostoevsky in his criticism of "The Execution of Tropmann," is concerned with the writer-citizen's responsibility to portray violent experience truthfully. For Dostoevsky, turning away from an execution was moral timidity. For Hemingway, who revered both Turgenev and Dostoevsky, it was an artistic and aesthetic shortcoming--softness, a diluted approach to writing. "The Execution of Tropmann" exposed Turgenev's glass jaw; Hemingway publicly promised a more faithful representation of violence in his own work.
In the opening pages of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway presents the book's raison d'etre:
The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring, and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death. (2)
This proclamation at once justifies Death in the Afternoon and sheds light on Hemingway's larger aesthetic aim. He not only positions himself as a writer striving towards a specific objective, but distinguishes himself from previous writers who he believes failed to portray violent death authentically. In the same passage, he elaborates:
I had read many books in which, when the author tried to convey it, he only produced a blur, and I decided that this was because either the author had never seen it clearly or at the moment of it, he had physically or mentally shut his eyes, as one might do if he saw a child that he could not possibly reach or aid, about to be struck by a train. In such a case I suppose he would probably be justified in shutting his eyes as the mere fact of the child about to be struck by the train was all that he could convey, the actual striking would be an anti-climax, so that the moment before striking might be as far as he could represent. (2-3)
Such unseemly flinching, argues Hemingway, while it spares readers and the writer himself from the shock and immediacy of the death blow, leaves the artist to pass off the anticipation of death as the sole source of the emotion inherent in violence, creating a false impression. By contrast, an execution by a firing squad or a hanging provides an opportunity for study that an accident does not: "[I]f these very simple things were to be made permanent, as, say, Goya tried to make them in Los Desastros [sic] de la Guerra, it could not be done with any shutting of the eyes" (DIA 3). Hemingway stresses that a writer's inclination towards self-protection robs the reader of a true presentation of death.
Hemingway made sure to name Goya when citing a particularly authentic and courageous 19th century artist. Hemingway frequently went outside of literature--to painters such as Goya, Brueghel, Bosch, and Cezanne, (11) or to a composer such as Bach--to name paradigms of irreproachable artists. Although he did not specify any of the "many books" or identify any of the timid writers who failed to make the simple matter of life and death "permanent" Death in the Afternoon indicts Turgenev by implication, just as it supports Dostoevsky's outrage.
Hemingway's work might be more compellingly read as a reaction to 19th century literature than as a dialogue with his 20th century contemporaries. Portrayals of executions were at the center of the debate framed by Turgenev and Dostoevsky--a debate that forced most major 19th century writers to choose sides. In addition to Turgenev, Byron, Hugo, Dickens, Thackeray, Twain, and Tolstoy all witnessed executions. As citizens, they may have been uneasy about state-sponsored killing, but as writers, they were impelled to witness and report vividly and honestly on beheadings and hangings. Although Hemingway enters in the wake of this formidable debate, his writing on the topic transcends political commentary on capital punishment and provides a key to his aesthetic of violence and ethic of writing.
From the beginning of his writing career, Hemingway seems to have absorbed this test of ethics and embraced the challenge. In Hemingway's early poetry, efforts such as "Ultimately" and "To Will Davies" reveal that element of Hemingway's imagination Michael Reynolds describes as "fascinated with executions and the demeanor of the executed" (Young Hemingway 215). Verna Kale argues that these early poems demonstrate Hemingway's intention to write accurately and honestly about even the most violent activity. Kale points out that just as "Ultimately" begins with a condemned man who "tried to spit out the truth" (CP 39), Hemingway engages in the same task as a writer. These early works, Kale writes, represent "a testament to the frustrations of a young author who knows that he wants to write truly" (62). The challenge of writing truly about violent death that Hemingway articulates in the much later Death in the Afternoon (1932), then, is evidenced even in work pre-dating his first publication.
Hemingway's fixation with executions and with holding his gaze to violence is still present in Under Kilimanjaro (composed 1954-56), where Hemingway experiences a bizarre dream in which he and the safari crew member Keiti hang a man called the Informer. Even this somewhat gratuitous aside clearly reveals Hemingway's attitude about recording an execution:
Recounting this I gave him the exact procedure: where, how, why, how he had taken it, and how we had taken him out, afterwards, in the hunting car to be eaten by the hyenas ... I gave him some more details of the execution ... I could remember all the details of the execution of the Informer in about the third of the nightmares and I was ashamed of having even such a nocturnal imagination. (UK 120, 120-121, 123)
This articulation in Under Kilimanjaro is consistent with even the earliest evocation of this theme in Hemingway's writing. He is focused on the "demeanor of the executed," or "how he had taken it," dying well or badly, as Hemingway would put it elsewhere. Hemingway's imagination and his dreamscape, both his unconscious and his conscious minds, are attuned to the intrigue of sudden death, and to presenting it in good prose.
Hemingway's aesthetic of witness also translated to the way he lived life as a disciplined, professional writer when far from his desk. Robert McAlmon recounts how he and Hemingway, on a trip to Madrid in 1924, saw a dead dog in a dreadful state of decay. McAlmon admits that he turned away from the awful sight, at which point:
Hemingway gave a dissertation on facing reality. It seemed that he had seen in the war the stacked corpses of men, maggot-eaten in a similar way. He advised a detached and scientific attitude toward the corpse of the dog. He tenderly explained that we of our generation must inure ourselves to the sight of grim reality. I recalled that Ezra Pound had talked once of Hemingway's "self-hardening process" (160)
The characterization of Hemingway as endeavoring to undergo a process of "self-hardening describes the callousness or shell of objectivity that Hemingway believed a writer--particularly a modern writer--needed to convey violent death authentically. This ethic runs throughout Hemingway's career, with a similar episode recounted in Under Kilimanjaro, when Hemingway realizes that "Nguili had never seen a dead wild dog so we stopped and examined one" (UK366). The characters study the carcass in a subsequent paragraph, recording the details in the "detached and scientific" manner that McAlmon recalls.
Hemingway directly confronts the issue of beholding violence and transmuting that experience into fiction in the discarded four-page coda to "A Natural History of the Dead":
I have never been much impressed by horrors so called, due perhaps to a great curiosity which forces me to look at them closely whereupon the horror is difficult of persistence [sic] and the greatest horrors I can recall are, first a child being lifted with his legs dangling oddly after being run over by a bus on the stone road between Grau and Valencia and an old man in Madrid struck by a motor car and fallen from his bicycle ... I suppose I must have turned away from both of these since I remember them with no element of the grotesqueness that replaces horror when the object or occurrence is closely observed. (qtd. in Beegel 46)
This passage introduces a paradox similar to Turgenev's in "The Execution of Tropmann." As Susan E Beegel wonders in her explication of this passage, "Would a man who had averted his gaze from such scenes have such flawless recollection of their details?" (46). The dichotomy arises between the natural history of the dead and a dramatic narrative of violent death. The man must ask if his morality and psyche will allow him to witness a violent death, but the writer knows that without such an experience, his text will lack this crucial element.
In an unpublished fragment, "The Way Fish Die" Hemingway offers a related examination of the dead, posing as a naturalist interested in scientific description, not emotion. In this disturbing piece, Hemingway offers his version of Vardaman Bundren, the grieving young boy in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying who conflates his dead mother with a dead fish. Hemingway, presumably writing after his father's 1928 suicide, declares that studying dead fish is easier and more practical than waiting for your friends or family to die and hoping to be present in order to study them (JFK Folder 812).
As in Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway in "The Way Fish Die" stresses the training--the discipline and experience--required to render the true essence of the violent moment, rather than the ornamental, the expected, or the unnecessary. He emphasizes the cold objectivity that the writer must have, able to treat even a parent's suicide as if a disinterested party. Unable to be objective even at the execution of a mass murderer, Turgenev freely admitted that he failed to achieve such a standard. But for Hemingway, both a dead parent and a dead dog on the road required the same dispassionate ethic of vision from the writer. Like Dr. Adams in "Indian Camp" Hemingway does not hear the screams, because they are not important.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the absence of observing the moment of an execution is a source of implied frustration for Robert Jordan. Pilar is able to describe in excruciating detail the mass execution of Fascists in her town, but Jordan cannot claim a similar experience. For this shortcoming, he is the target of Pilar's condescending taunt: "thou hast seen nothing" (FWTBT 99). Jordan describes a racial lynching that occurred when he was visiting Ohio as a seven-year-old attending a wedding. However, when questioned by Pilar, Jordan admits that he cannot represent the experience with perfect accuracy. "I saw it only looking out from under the blinds of a window in the house which stood on the corner where the arc light was. The street was full of people and when they lifted the Negro up for the second time ... my mother pulled me away from the window, so I saw no more" (116-117). (12) The image neatly reverses a moment from Pilar's extended narrative, when she describes scrambling onto a chair to look out of a window, the better to view the violence. However, it is crucial to note that Jordan's mother, and not Jordan himself, decided to spare him the sight of the execution. Jordan points out this detail when recounting the anecdote. (13)
In A Farewell to Arms, the climactic moment of the Caporetto retreat involves viewing an execution. Frederic Henry notices a disturbance of flashing lights on the other side of the bridge across the Tagliamento River. His careful narration provides a meticulous litany of what Frederic captures in his field of vision. He "sees" eight separate things in less than two pages: the carabinieri and officers in silhouette; one of the officers picking out another officer; the man selected for questioning; the stars on the sleeve that make the accused man a lieutenant-colonel; one or two officers looking at Frederic himself; the carabiniere approaching Frederic; the carabinieri's face after Frederic hits him; and, the flashes of the rifle as the lieutenant-colonel is executed (FTA 222-223). Frederic's faithful reporting of his field of vision speaks to the unavoidable receptivity of sight, what James Joyce calls in Ulysses "the ineluctable modality of the visual" and "what you damn well have to see" (3.1, 9.86). However, Frederic soon gives conscious direction to his vision and powers of attention, remarking that he "looked at the man the officers were questioning" (223). This deliberate attention ends when the man is executed and Frederic recalls, "I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots" (224). As in the difference between "listening" and "hearing," Frederic uses the verb "watch" rather than "see," suggesting that he could have physically witnessed the killing had he not turned away. Although seeing something is not a choice--it is ineluctable--watching something does connote intentionality. Watching requires sustained attention. As the narrator, Frederic creates a harrowing near-death experience, but does not provide the vivid detail of death for his readers.
After Frederic avoids seeing the moment of execution, the burden of vision assumes a different kind of importance in the scene. In a famously mordant articulation, Frederic states, "I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked" (FTA 224). Here, sight is figurative and equals an analysis of behavior and a corresponding understanding. In the rest of the chapter, Frederic's tone changes markedly: "I looked at the carabinieri. They were looking at the newcomers. The others were looking at the colonel" (225). After noticing what people are "looking" at--that is, what they are paying attention to--Frederic discerns that he may escape. He breaks free, reaches the Tagliamento, and then dives into the river.
Even during his swim to freedom, vision is a crucial theme. "I saw a piece of timber ahead of me" Frederic recalls. "I kept my head behind it and did not even look over it. I did not want to see the bank" (FTA 225). However, soon after, once the carabinieri have given up shooting at him, Frederic "looked at the bank." In this critical passage, what Frederic chooses to see and what he chooses to avoid seeing reveals his mental state. The chapter ends with Frederic gliding down the river, swept up by the current, noticing, "The shore was out of sight now" (225).
The notion of sight so important to the crisis of the war story in A Farewell to Arms returns during the crisis of the love story: Catherine Barkley's fatal childbirth. In a scene echoing Hemingway's earlier "Indian Camp;' Frederic not only discloses just what happens, but is also careful to specify what he sees and does not see. When the nurse invites Frederic to sit on a bench and the operating room is described as a "bright small amphitheatre," the scene recalls a sporting event (AFTA 324). The language of the delivery suggests a spectacle, a performance, rather than a life-or-death operation.
As Frederic's fear sets in, he chooses to stay outside the operating room. Instead of witnessing Catherine on the main stage of activity, he directs his visual attention elsewhere:
I looked out the window. It was dark but in the light from the window I could see it was raining. I went into a room at the far end of the hall and looked at the labels on bottles in a glass case. Then I came out and stood in the empty hall and watched the door of the operating room. (AFTA 324)
In this sequence, Frederic looks out the window and sees the rain, in this novel, an insistent harbinger of doom. He looks at the bottles, and then watches the door. He turns down the opportunity to see, look at, and watch the operation.
After the delivery of his son, Frederic reports that the doctor "held him up for me to see" (AFTA 324). His choice of descriptors reflects the violence and morbidity attached to the child's stillbirth. Frederic narrates, "I saw the little dark face and dark hand, but I did not see him move or hear him cry" (325). As the doctor works on the baby, Frederic makes more choices about what to see and what not to see:
I did not wait to see it. I went out in the hall. I could go in now and see. I went in the door and a little way down the gallery. The nurses who were sitting at the rail motioned for me to come down where they were. I shook my head. I could see enough where I was .... I knew as I watched I could have watched it all, but I was glad I hadn't. I do not think I could have watched them cut, but I watched the wound closed into a high welted ridge with quick skilful-looking stitches like a cobbler's, and was glad. (325)
Frederic's narration is even more solipsistic than Turgenev's, focusing more on his role as a witness than on Catherine's danger and her role as a patient. When the doctor emerges from the operating room, his focus, too, is on Frederic as much as Catherine. Their exchange is bizarre: the doctor asks Frederic, "Did you watch?" to which Frederic responds, "I saw you sew up" (325). The disproportionate focus on what Frederic sees, as opposed to what is happening to Catherine, is not egotistical rambling, but rather a testament to the fidelity of Hemingway's first-person narration. A Farewell to Arms is not a work of omniscient narration, but the limited retrospective vision of a man who occasionally averted his eyes.
In "Indian Camp;' the young Nick Adams--like Frederic Henry--becomes a witness to an unexpectedly violent operation. Through Dr. Adams's lack of foresight, the boy's vision comes to define the narrative. After his father explains what labor is and why the Indian woman screams, Nick responds, "I see" (SS 92), using the verb to suggest not only vision but comprehension. Dr. Adams continues his explanations, beginning his next point by saying, "You see, Nick, babies are supposed to be born head first" (93). After the baby is delivered, Dr. Adams addresses his son in the same particular way: "See, it's a boy, Nick" (93).
Nick, however, does not see. Although he affirms his father's good news, the narrator reports: "He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing" (SS 93). Dr. Adams continues the post-operative procedure, but the one-sentence paragraph that follows reads, "Nick didn't look at it." Finally, Dr. Adams seems to intuit that the operation is too much for his son; he assures him during the suturing of the woman's wound, "you can watch this or not, Nick, just as you like" (93). The decision is obvious: "Nick did not watch." Nick chooses to avoid seeing the unfamiliar ordeal of a difficult childbirth, but he has no choice about his unexpected "good view" of the Indian father's suicide in the upper bunk (94).
"Indian Camp" delineates the distinction between choosing to observe the harsh realities of life or choosing to avoid them, and between having authority over the power of vision or having that authority controlled by someone else. Nick "damn well" had to see the suicide because of his father's insensitivity and adherence to professional responsibility.
Hemingway's kinship with Dostoevsky rather than Turgenev highlights an essential aspect of Brett Ashley's personality in The Sun Also Rises. When lake introduces Brett to bullfighting, he is concerned that she may not have the stomach to watch the bulls gore the steers. (14) During the unloading of the first bulls, they have a brief exchange, at which point Brett surprises him:
"Don't look," I said to Brett. She was watching, fascinated.
"Fine" I said. "If it doesn't buck you."
"I saw it," she said. (SAR 144)
After lake approves her continuing to watch if it doesn't disturb her, Brett says that she saw it, not that it did not "buck" her. While lake holds Brett to a standard of watching only those incidents that do not disturb her, she wants to see the full spectacle of the bullfight, and makes sure that she does.
Book I prefigures Brett's willingness to look at the most violent situations, when lake observes of her: "She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes. They would look on and on after every one else's eyes in the world would have stopped looking. She looked as though there was nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things" (SAR 34). Even at this early stage of the novel, Jake incisively distinguishes between Brett's gaze--the passage can be read as his improbable restatement of Emerson's "transparent eyeball"--and the things that frighten her. During her infatuation with Pedro Romero, Brett admits, "I can't look at him" (188). As Pedro fights a bull whose own vision is impaired, Brett says, "It's the sort of thing I don't like to see" (221). Jake acknowledges this reality: "It was not nice to watch if you cared anything about the person who was doing it" (221). Ultimately, Brett is more "bucked" by love (or lust or infatuation, emotional attachment) than violence.
Jake's attitude toward Brett is the fictional equivalent of similar passages in Death in the Afternoon, where Hemingway writes: "Women that I felt sure would enjoy the bullfights with the exception of the goring of the horses were quite unaffected by it; I mean really unaffected, that is, something that they disapproved of and that they expected would horrify and disgust them did not disgust them or horrify them at all" (4). In the appendix entitled "Some Reactions" Hemingway profiles a woman--Mrs. E.R.--whose response recalls Brett's: (15)
Did not want her to see horses in bullfight, but believed she would enjoy rest of corrida. Had her look away when bull charged horse. Told her when not to look. Did not want to shock or horrify her. Found she was not shocked nor horrified by horses and enjoyed it as a part of bullfight which she enjoyed greatly first time and became great admirer and partizan of. (DIA 467)
Bill advises Robert Cohn about how to avoid being disgusted when the bulls gore the horses. Similarly, Jake tells Brett: "Don't look at the horses, after the bull hits them.... Watch the charge and see the picador try and keep the bull off, but then don't look again until the horse is dead if it's been hit.... Just don't watch when it's bad" (SAR 165-166). Several times during the bullfight that follows, Jake seems obsessed with comparing the respective reactions of Brett and Cohn. Just as Hemingway himself did in the "Some Reactions" section of Death in the Afternoon, Jake uses his friends' responses as a kind of moral barometer. Jake finds that "Brett did not look upset" (168). Asked how she handled the spectacle of the horses being killed, Brett reports, "I couldn't help looking at them." Mike confirms: "She couldn't take her eyes off them.... She's an extraordinary wench" Brett then says, "They do have some rather awful things happen to them ... I couldn't look away, though" (169).
The line between sadism and a "healthy" interest in watching every detail of the bullfights is not always clear. Beegel attributes Hemingway's inclusion of violence in "A Natural History of the Dead" to his "half-sadistic creative impulse" (49). Responding to a similar charge by Cohn, Mike defends Brett: "Brett's not a sadist. She's just a lovely, healthy wench" When Jake asks Brett if she is a sadist, she replies, "Hope not" (SAR 170). In our time, is it sadism to stare without blinking at the most horrific moment in a violent scene? Or is it instead the responsibility of every mature person, and particularly our artists?
Of all the moral judgments that can be made about Robert Cohn, one of his most damning sins is that he flinches at the realities of violence. Cohn--a novelist--did not participate in World War I, unlike Jake and Brett. Jake's scorn for Cohn's lack of personal bravery matches Hemingway's frustration with writers who show the same timidity in their work. With Cohn and Brett--just as Dostoevsky did by juxtaposing Turgenev with himself--Hemingway emphasizes the difference between two moral and aesthetic sensibilities that illuminate his quest to represent realities of violence. When Hemingway boasted to Lillian Ross and William Faulkner of beating Mr. Turgenev, he might have been referring to his ability to write sportsman's sketches and render nature and landscape even more evocatively than his Russian precursor. His real test of having moved beyond Turgenev, however, was to realize the challenge he articulates at the beginning of Death in the Afternoon--the authentic representation of violent death, putting into sharp focus what for previous authors had simply been a blur.
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--. Under Kilimanjaro. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2005.
--. "The Way Fish Die" Manuscript. Folder 812. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John E Kennedy Library. Boston, MA.
Jackson, Robert Louis. Dialogues With Dostoevsky: The Overwhelming Questions. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1993.
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University of Evansville
(1.) Hemingway referred to Turgenev as "the greatest writer there ever was" (SL 179), yet also bragged to William Faulkner that in his "first fight" he had "Beat Turgenieff ... soundly and for time" (SL 624). He told Lillian Ross, "I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev" (qtd. in Ross 48); to Charles Scribner, Jr., he claimed: "I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn't too hard" (SL 673). Hemingway tided his 1926 parody The Torrents of Spring in homage to the 1872 Turgenev novella of the same title, a tribute he would repeat seven years later with "Fathers and Sons" the final published Nick Adams story, lake Barnes reads Turgenev in the heady Pamplona nighttime, and lake's pastoral excursion to Burguete with Bill Gorton recalls A Sportsman's Sketches, usually considered Turgenev's masterpiece. In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway cites Turgenev as the model for authentically rendering natural terrain: "through Turgenieff" he writes, "I knew that I had lived there [i.e., Russia in the mid-19th century]" (108). Henry James makes an identical observation about reading Turgenev: "His works savour strongly of his native soil, like those of all great novelists, and give one who has read them all a strange sense of having had a prolonged experience of Russia. We seem to have travelled there in dreams, to have dwelt there in another state of being" (974-975). When asked to name his influences, Hemingway listed Turgenev fifth: "Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Chekhov" (Plimpton 27).
(2.) Critics have analyzed Turgenev's influence on The Torrents of Spring (Coltrane; Taylor, l06-108) and The Sun Also Rises (Stoneback, 236-37; Wilkinson). Edmund Wilson compares Hemingway's evocation of nature in "Big Two-Hearted River" to Turgenev's (216-217), while George Wickes connects the vignettes in A Moveable Feast to the similar structure of A Sportsman's Sketches (47). In a review of By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, a posthumously published collection of Hemingway's journalism, Dan Jacobson rates Hemingway's reportage unfavorably against that of Orwell, Twain, Tolstoy, and Turgenev (340). Myler Wilkinson's study of the Hemingway-Turgenev relationship focuses primarily on Hemingway's debt to A Sportsman's Sketches and Fathers and Sons. Peter Lisca points out that in Across the River and into the Trees, Hemingway uses Venice in ways that echo Turgenev, as well as Henry James, and Thomas Mann (244).
(3.) "The Execution of Tropmann" was first translated into French in 1887 by Isaac Pavlovsky, appearing in the collection Souvenirs sur Tourgueneff, under the title "L'Execution de Tropmann" (Zekulin 19). The essay was also translated into French in 1892 by Michel Deslines under the title "Devant la guillotine" (Zekulin 131).
(4.) "The Execution of Tropmann" appeared under the title "In Front of the Guillotine" in Bachelor's Quarters: Stories From Two Worlds, a 1944 collection including Hemingway's own "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife' The only other English translation is in the 1958 collection Turgenev's Literary Recollections and Autobiographical Fragments, assembled by David Magarshack (Yachnin and Stam 21). The Magarshack translation is included in Phillip Lopate's popular anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay (1994).
(5.) In Under Kilimanjaro, Hemingway claims to have brought "twenty volumes of Simenon in French" along for rainy-weather reading on the safari (111). Miss Mary later excoriates him for this: "We all know you read French. Was it necessary to come all the way to Africa to read French?" (240).
(6.) In Under Kilimanjaro, Hemingway echoes this point: "This looking and not seeing things was a great sin, I thought, and one that was easy to fall into. It was always the beginning of something bad and I thought that we did not deserve to live in the world if we did not see it" (225). In the introduction to his 1938 collection of short stories, Hemingway writes that the artist's job consists of "going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see" (SS vi), still prizing action, performance, and vision.
(7.) Reynolds does not list Demons (also known as The Devils or The Possessed) among the books by Dostoyevsky that Hemingway is known to have owned or read. However, Hemingway did own Dostoevsky: A Life, Avrahm Yarmolinksy's 1934 biography, which details Dostoevsky's satire of Turgenev in Demons. Yarmolinsky describes Turgenev as being "crudely and maliciously caricatured" (295).
(8.) Depending on the account, the criminal's name is spelled Tropman, Troppman, Tropmann, or Traupmann. The surname of the victims has been spelled Kink and Kinck. Likewise, Turgenev's story--originally titled "Kazn' Tropmana"--has various English titles. Except when quoting other sources directly, I have adhered to David Magarshack's standard translation.
(9.) See interchapters V and XV of In Our Time (SS 127, 219), in which executions (six cabinet ministers and Sam Cardinella, respectively) are described in strictly objective terms.
(10.) The phrasing of this moment merits noting discrepancies in translations. The unnamed translator of the earlier version renders Turgenev's realization as: "I was conscious only of one thing; I had no right to be where I was at that hour, my presence in the place could not be justified in any way, psychological or moral" ("In Front" 693). Two distinctions emerge: first, Magarshack renders certainty while the earlier translation renders awareness; second, Magarshack uses "philosophic" instead of"moral" two hardly synonymous adjectives.
(11.) Cezanne is a significant figure in any discussion of the aesthetics of witness. His favorite poem was Baudelaire's "Une Charogne" ("A Carcass") from The Flowers of Evil, which describes a couple witnessing a decaying, maggot-infested animal corpse, and the speaker of the poem explaining that the object of his affection will one day stink and decay, just like the carrion. In 1907, Rilke stated that this Baudelaire poem contains "the key to 'the whole evolution towards objectivity in expression'" (170), delineating the precise debate between Dostoevsky and Turgenev. See McAlmon's anecdote about Hemingway, below in this article.
(12.) In the novel's typescript, the final phrase, "so I saw no more" is added in Hemingway's hand, a rare addendum to a version that contains comparatively few late edits (JFK Folder 83).
(13.) Hemingway did not witness the actual lynching on which this incident is based, but instead fictionalized an experience of his older sister Marcelline (Baker 105).
(14.) See a similar moment in Under Kilimanjaro: "I put my arm around Mary and turned her away so she would not see Charo slip the knife into the sticking place which would make the old bull legal meat for all Mohammedans" (65).
(15.) Miriam Mandel points out that E.R. actually refers to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife (151).
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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